Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture

Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture

by Jim Collins


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Bring on the Books for Everybody is an engaging assessment of the robust popular literary culture that has developed in the United States during the past two decades. Jim Collins describes how a once solitary and print-based experience has become an exuberantly social activity, enjoyed as much on the screen as on the page. Fueled by Oprah's Book Club, Miramax film adaptations, superstore bookshops, and new technologies such as the Kindle digital reader, literary fiction has been transformed into best-selling, high-concept entertainment. Collins highlights the infrastructural and cultural changes that have given rise to a flourishing reading public at a time when the future of the book has been called into question. Book reading, he claims, has not become obsolete; it has become integrated into popular visual media.

Collins explores how digital technologies and the convergence of literary, visual, and consumer cultures have changed what counts as a "literary experience" in phenomena ranging from lush film adaptations such as The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love to the customer communities at Amazon. Central to Collins's analysis and, he argues, to contemporary literary culture, is the notion that refined taste is now easily acquired; it is just a matter of knowing where to access it and whose advice to trust. Using recent novels, he shows that the redefined literary landscape has affected not just how books are being read, but also what sort of novels are being written for these passionate readers. Collins connects literary bestsellers from The Jane Austen Book Club and Literacy and Longing in L.A. to Saturday and The Line of Beauty, highlighting their depictions of fictional worlds filled with avid readers and their equations of reading with cultivated consumer taste.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822346067
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 06/30/2010
Pages: 300
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Jim Collins is Professor of Film and Television, and English at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Architectures of Excess: Cultural Life in the Information Age and Uncommon Cultures: Popular Culture and Post-Modernism; the editor of High-Pop: Making Culture into Popular Entertainment; and a co-editor of Film Theory Goes to the Movies.


Boulder, Colorado

Date of Birth:

January 25, 1958

Place of Birth:

Aurora, Colorado


B.S. in mathematical sciences, Stanford University, 1980; M.B.A., Stanford University, 1983

Read an Excerpt


How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture
By Jim Collins

Duke university Press

Copyright © 2010 Duke university Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4606-7

Chapter One


Barnes & Noble,, and Self-Cultivation How well do you remember that, say, six-hundred-pager the Times assured you was destined to become a classic? You know. The "monumental work of fiction" that you were supposed to run, not walk to the nearest bookstore to purchase, the book that was going to change your life, that you must read this year if you read nothing else ... Winner of the National Book Award.... We sell these babies for fifty cents apiece, or try to, seven years after they come out. We sell them because no one has checked them out for four years. -Jincy Willett, Winner of the National Book Award (2003) They're gonna hate us at the beginning, but we'll get them in the end.... In the meantime, we might as well put up a sign, Coming Soon: a Fox Books Superstore, the End of Civilization as You Know it. -Nora Ephron, You've Got Mail (1999) At least, she thinks, she does not read mysteries or romances. At least she continues to improve her mind. Right now she is reading Virginia Woolf.... She, Laura, likes to imagine (it's one of her most closely held secrets) that she has a touch of brilliance herself, just a hint of it, though she knows most people probably walk around with similar hopeful suspicions curled up inside them, never divulged. She wonders, while she pushes a cart through the supermarket or has her hair done, if other women aren't thinking, to some degree or other, the same thing: Here is the brilliant spirit, the woman of sorrows, the woman of transcendent joys, who would rather be elsewhere. -Michael Cunningham, The Hours (1998)

I begin this chapter with these three quotations, one drawn from a bestselling novel featuring a librarian as its narrator, one from a popular film about a romance between bookstore owners, and another from a bestselling prize-winning novel turned into an extremely successful film, because they reveal so much about conflicting but interdependent aspects of popular literary culture in the United States. In the first, a self-professed, "omnivorous reader" summarily rejects the authority of America's premier taste-making newspaper, the New York literary culture that it embodies, and the entire taste culture responsible for determining what is, and isn't, significant fiction. Yet this novel is far from a simple "let them read what they like" rant, since this librarian is full of advice about what should be read, and all too aware of the relationship among reading, literary value, and the book market, a point made quite vividly by the title of the novel, which literalizes that interdependency-Winner of the National Book Award. If the award signifies achievement and marketability, why not make the sticker on the front cover into the title of the novel? At this point, just what constitutes significant fiction appears to be up for grabs-is it in the craft of the fiction, or the way that it has been evaluated and promoted within a particular taste culture? The business of literary taste production and the business of selling books appear to be thoroughly interdependent, because, according to this particular Winner of the National Book Award, buying the book is buying into the authority of an evaluative system that can no longer be trusted when it comes to the pleasures of reading.

If avid readers can no longer trust the New York Times about what to read, where they go to actually buy books has become just as problematic. The bookstore has been undergoing a highly visible image change in recent years within the public imagination. In You've Got Mail (1999), characters played by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan manage to fall in love despite the fact that they own rival bookstores, and in Notting Hill (2000) two more "A-list" movie stars, Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, manage to somehow do the same, despite the fact that she's a Hollywood megastar and he owns a modest little bookshop. Struggling but devastatingly attractive bookstore owners seem to have replaced the starving young artist as the epitome of romantic cultural chic, embodying a sweet, but nonetheless, comical earnestness in their disdain of the marketplace for the pursuit of higher cultural ideals. That two such high-profile films should make bookstores one of their primary locations for falling in love suggests that bookstores now fulfill different cultural functions for a mass audience. Yet there is trouble in paradise-the bookstore may have acquired a degree of sexiness that has heretofore escaped the notice of the public at large, but they are also a battleground where the forces of legitimate and illegitimate culture clash by night, and day, or at least from 9:00 A.M. to 11:00 P.M., seven days a week. The proliferation of Barnes & Noble and Borders superstores has been widely reported in the press and roundly denounced as the ruination of smaller "real" bookstores, which have either already gone out of business or live in constant fear of eventual annihilation. So important are these real bookstores to the sanctity of a genuine literary experience that even the character played by Tom Hanks (the owner of the bookstore chain that is clearly modeled on Barnes & Noble) acknowledges the resistance his new superstore will encounter when it opens on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, admitting that such stores signal the end of civilization within this notoriously literary neighborhood in Manhattan. But why should a bookstore, of all things, signal the end of civilization?

The quotation from The Hours (1998), which describes what the "incessant reader" Laura Brown hopes to achieve in her reading, suggests something else-despite the runaway commercialization of bookselling and the loss of faith in traditional literary authority, there is still a persistent need to experience some kind of aesthetic pleasure that only literary fiction offers, even to nonprofessional readers. Cunningham's characterization of Laura as driven reader (which echoes so neatly the ethnographic accounts of actual reading group members discussed below) is paradigmatic-she is not a genre reader, she is in search of self-cultivation hoping to improve her mind, and her reading allows her to separate herself from mind-numbing quotidian concerns even while immersed in them at the supermarket. She experiences her own brilliance as she reads, because she senses that she and Woolf are kindred spirits, their shared sensibility allowing her to occupy a "twilight zone of sorts: a world composed of London in the twenties, of a turquoise hotel room, and of this car, driving down this familiar street. She is herself and not herself. She is a woman in London, an aristocrat, pale and charming, a little false: she is Virginia Woolf; and she is this other inchoate, tumbling thing known as herself, a mother, a driver, a swirling streak of pure life like the Milky Way ..." (187). The three main characters in Cunningham's novel-Laura Brown, Virginia Woolf, and Clarissa Vaughan-all share remarkably similar perceptions and emotions, but what is particularly significant in this regard is that Laura, as the incessantly reading suburban housewife, shares the same rarified sensibility as the great Author and the New York literary editor. Reading is as formative and trans-formative for Laura, the amateur reader, as writing and editing are for the professional literary types-the sensitivity of the reading makes it coequal with the sophisticated production of those words.

As such, Laura Brown may well serve as a kind of patron saint for the millions of nonacademic readers who form the rank and file of the contemporary popular literary culture, but with an essential caveat. She represents the prehistory of the popular literary because she is a solitary reader, adrift in a suburban wasteland, desperate to "only connect," but able to find kindred spirits only in Woolf and her character Mrs. Dalloway. The Laura Browns of the contemporary literary scene are a well-targeted audience, catered to aggressively by divisions of the publishing, television, and film industries, who are desperate to connect with her, eager to provide her with the means by which she can connect with armies of like-minded readers circulating in those same supermarkets and superstores. Laura could only connect with Mrs. Dalloway via her local library copy of the book; contemporary readers can become one with Laura by buying Cunningham's novel, but they can also become one with an imagined community of like-minded passionate readers if they buy Bookclub-In-A-Box Discusses the Novel The Hours by Michael Cunningham. Laura Brown floated through stores in the suburban America of 1947 trying to anesthetize herself to the banality around her; the Laura Browns of the early twenty-first century float through suburban discount stores like Target, where they encounter The Hours on Recommended Books end-cap displays. Within this consumer environment, literary books obviously occupy a very different place, but their appearance as featured books in the discount store points to an established audience, which itself suggests a widespread desire for an aesthetic experience, which is dramatically apart from the very space where you buy the book.

Taken together, the three quotations at the start of this chapter are representative of the changing infrastructure of popular literary culture and the fact that those changes have become the subject of popular culture. On the one hand, they suggest that widespread changes are under way in terms of who, or what, counts as an authority on the pleasures of reading and where those pleasures are to be found. While they reflect significant contestation about how this popular literary culture should define itself, outside the confines of the academy, the New York literary scene, and real bookstores that used to serve as its outposts across the rest of the country, the need to find a specific type of cultural fix appears undeniable for individuals who describe their reading in terms of an addiction for that which is ultimately civilizing. Laura Brown's reading is driven by a desire to improve her mind through her amateur reading, which would seem an unassailable virtue, but these self-cultivation projects pursued outside the academy have met with as much condemnation as celebration, nowhere more obviously in the wildly differing accounts of the benefits of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, which I will explore in greater detail in the next chapter. How indeed do these changes mark the end of civilization as we know it, in regard to what civilization might consist of as process of self-cultivation, and in regard to how we come to know it or, more specifically, how we come to know how to acquire it?

The goal of this chapter is to gain a more subtle understanding of those readers who used to be called common readers but are more often called avid or passionate readers, now that they are defined in terms of the intensity of their desire rather than their lack of refinement. These readers may be described, with equal accuracy, as a target audience, a reading community with its own interpretive protocols, and a reading formation. I believe it is only by incorporating all three of these alternative definitions that we can learn just who is doing this reading, for what purposes, talking what sort of literary talk, catered to by what new delivery systems, and guided by which cultural authorities. In her ground-breaking work on reading groups (1992), Elizabeth Long stresses the social infrastructure of reading, arguing that "the ideology of the solitary reader suppresses recognition of the infrastructure of literacy and the social and institutional determinants of what's available to read, what is 'worth reading,' and how to read it" ("Textual Interpretation," 193). In her interviews with members of a variety of different book clubs she found that contemporary literary fiction and the classics were the most frequent choices, because they had the greatest potential for discussability, but their discussions were animated by a different kind of evaluative criteria, their own way of talking the talk of books.

Their independence flows from their "uses" of literature. Because these readers incorporate books into their lives primarily as special life-experiences, they often judge them according to their non-literary lives. While literary critics have, at least until recently, aspired to pure or disinterested aesthetic judgment, reading group members are "interested" readers: they are looking for not only a "good reading" but meaningful and pleasurable experiences from books and literary discussions. Thus "discussability," the very term that gears most reading groups into a traditional evaluative framework, also distances them from it. ("The Book," 312)

That "interested" readers would consider "discussability" the preeminent criterion for selecting books reveals just how tightly imbricated personal and social pleasures are within popular literary culture. To return to the distinctions made by A. S. Byatt in her novel Possession, which were discussed in the introduction, these are relentlessly personal readings, in the sense that books take on value only when they are introjected into the lives of readers, not the impersonal readings she prefers, where readers surrender themselves to the voice of the Author and check their personal lives at the door before entering. But "personal" does not mean solitary, or isolated. Because of their relative independence from the academic modes of literary analysis, these textual communities, then, are also distinct interpretive communities that give reading literary fiction a particular use value. Janice Radway has argued convincingly that this term (first developed by Stanley Fish to describe the ways that different literary critics could produce radically divergent interpretations of the same poems depending on the critical approach or community they were affiliated with) can be used to describe the variable literacies that give different values to reading inside and outside the academy ("Interpretive Communities"). But where the readers of romance fiction that Radway interviewed developed their own sort of literacy to enjoy nonliterary genre fiction on its own terms, the pleasures that nonacademic readers derive from reading literary fiction involves another kind of variant literacy, one that is shaped by elements drawn from reading protocols of both academic and popular interpretive communities.

These reading communities do not magically coalesce out of thin air-finding the titles worth reading, knowing how to talk about them, even knowing if you are a reader intended to read this sort of book all depend on an infrastructure. Tony Bennett's notion of a reading formation is particularly useful for understanding how all these factors coalesce to form something more than just a community of like-minded readers who have somehow managed to find one another and the sort of books they like to talk about together: "By reading formation I mean a set of discursive and intertextual determinations which organize and animate the practice of reading, connecting texts and readers in specific relations to one another by constituting readers as reading subjects of particular types and texts as objects-to-be read in particular ways" ("Texts in History," 7). The community, then, is not just an audience or a community but a set of interconnections in which the desire for a certain kind of reading pleasure becomes hardwired into a literary culture. The Laura Browns of 2004 could "talk directly" to author Michael Cunningham if they signed up for his online course "A Home at the End of the World," at the University of Barnes & Noble. This connection between reader and author is made possible by the conflation of retail store and institution of "higher learning." At this point, the role of the superstore bookstore, publishers' reading guides, and television book clubs all become vital constitutive elements of an extended reading community that is simultaneously a target audience, consolidated as much by the type of questions posed in book club courses at the University of Barnes & Noble as by the "Customers Who Bought The Hours Also Bought" appeals at


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction: Digital Books, Beach Chairs, and Popular Literary Culture 1

Part I The New Infrastructure of Reading: Sites, Delivery Systems, Authorities

1 The End of Civilization (or at Least Civilized Reading) as You Know It: Barnes & Noble,, and Self-Cultivation 39

2 Book Clubs, Book Lust, and National Librarians: Literary Connoisseurship as Popular Entertainment 80

Part II The Literary Experience in Visual Cultures

3 The Movie Was Better: The Rise of the Cine-Literary 117

4 "Miramaxing": Beyond Mere Adaptation 141

Part III Popular Literary Fiction

5 Sex and the Post-Literary City 183

6 The Devoutly Literary Bestseller 221

Bibliography 267

Index 277

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